As I’ve set out to help build a company around forming stronger professional relationships, I’ve spoken with hundreds of people to learn how they think about their relationships. One recurring theme really popped out: nearly everyone wants to make sure that their relationships are developed with authenticity.
Networking as a “bad word”
We all know the adage “It’s not what you know, but who you know”. Most of us accept that networking is an important aspect of our professional development and — like it or not — is critical to getting ahead in our careers. In fact, 70%+ of all jobs are filled based on relationships. It seems to be a well-established fact that networking is good. And yet it often feels so bad.
Cold, impersonal, fake, gross, exhausting, icky. These are all words I’ve heard people use to describe how they feel about networking. Yet, when I reframe the conversation as “relationship development” people tend to warm up and happily talk about the role of strong relationships in their professional success. These widely disparate reactions got me to thinking: surely there’s more to the difference than just terminology.
As I dug in, more patterns began to emerge. There is a set of activities that people tend to associate with (bad) “networking” but not necessarily (good) “relationship development”. Activities like socializing at meetups and happy hours or grabbing coffee with someone you’ve been introduced to out of the blue. These activities often involve a lot of people, almost all of whom are strangers. They’re also generally in a somewhat random context, with no deep connection between any of the participants.
The size and randomness are off-putting to many, but the real turn-off about these activities tends to be in how the motivations of the other attendees are perceived. These “networkers” are at the event with a mission disconnected from personal connection. They’re looking to quickly evaluate you and your potential to generate value for them. Whether they’re a salesperson, accountant, entrepreneur, or marketer they all have one thing in common: they’re looking to use you for a transaction.
In short, networking is seen as inauthentic.
I came across another startling discovery through a different set of conversations, this time with some of the world’s top professional networkers like Keith Ferrazzi, Adam Grant, Carter Cast, and Craig Wortmann. Despite being aware of the negative connotations of the word “networking”, it wasn’t a term they shied away from. Instead, they owned it and made it their own.
For the professionals with the strongest relationships, networking is very rarely about figuring out how much someone else is worth to you. Instead, good networking often starts with the opposite: figuring out how you can be helpful to someone else. Techstars, the global accelerator 4Degrees went through, talks about this concept using the hashtag #GiveFirst. The idea is that being generous with your time and talents is one of the best ways to get ahead in your career.
These top networkers also tend to seek out relationships based on deep commonalities or shared interests. A shared passion or area of expertise/learning can provide a solid foundation to help a fledgling relationship get through the awkward early stages of getting to know one another.
Putting authenticity into practice
There’s no reason that everyone can’t apply some of the best practices of the top networkers to help with their own professional relationship building. Some of these practices include:
- Bond with others over a shared passion, interest, or expertise. Even better if your fascination with a space is still in its early stages: experts often love to share their perspective when they see you’re interested in it!
- Take a genuine interest in people for who they are. It won’t always be immediately obvious how someone can be helpful to you, but disengaging from the conversation is a bad idea. Many opportunities come from sources you would never expect.
- When the time comes, be upfront about asking for help. Masking a favor request behind a thinly-veiled inquiry into your connection’s personal life just comes off as disingenuous. That being said, there’s no reason you shouldn’t take advantage of needing to ask for help as an opportunity to catch up!
- Look out for opportunities to reconnect. Every business trip is a chance to catch up with a few folks in that city. Every interesting article is a potential point of conversation. Each new meeting offers the possibility for an introduction to someone else you know that can be helpful to everyone involved.
What this means for 4Degrees
At 4Degrees we’re trying hard to codify these learnings about relationship building into our platform. Authenticity is one of our corporate values and one of the pillars that we’ve built our product on to distinguish it from the other solutions in the market.
Here are a few of the ways we’re trying to make authenticity a core part of our company:
- Committing to never conducting relationship development for our users. We will help our users be thoughtful and proactive, but never reach out pretending to be them.
- Focusing on non-transactional relationship development. We believe that salespeople already have a lot of tools at their disposal. We’re building something for all of the other professionals.
- Orienting toward 1-on-1 relationship building, which often allows for deeper conversations.